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Pentagon mum on Syria chemical weapons use


US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined Wednesday to discuss Syria's possible use of chemical weapons against rebels, raising doubts over whether Washington still views such action as a "red line."

President Barack Obama has repeatedly warned Damascus against resorting to chemical weapons, hinting that the use of such arms or the prospect of militant groups gaining control of them could prompt a US military intervention.

When asked direct questions by senators as to whether Syria has fired chemical weapons, both Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sidestepped the sensitive issue.

They told lawmakers the US intelligence chief, James Clapper, would likely address their queries behind closed doors Thursday.

"Our intelligence agencies are going into more detail on what we know and what we don't know," Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"When General Clapper is before you tomorrow, he will get into that, but I suspect that some of this will have to be done in closed session," Hagel said, when asked by Senator Carl Levin.

Dempsey also refused to answer a yes-or-no question from Republican Senator John McCain on whether the Syrian regime had employed weapons from its chemical arsenal.

"I think director Clapper, he may have to take you into closed session to answer that question," said Dempsey, the country's top military officer.

He said the United States was "eager" for a UN team to investigate reports about the possible use of chemical weapons and added that he could not say more in public.

Obama said last year that if the regime tried to move or use chemical weapons, that would "change my calculus," and that President Bashar al-Assad would be held accountable by the international community.

The fresh questions came as Hagel announced the Pentagon was reinforcing a US contingent in Jordan that has been deployed to help secure chemical weapons if necessary and prepare for a possible spillover of violence.

Some 150 US military specialists were sent to Jordan last year, and Hagel said he had ordered a US Army headquarters team to bolster the mission, bringing the total American presence to more than 200 troops, officials said.

"These personnel will continue to work alongside Jordanian Armed Forces to improve readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios," Hagel said.

But Dempsey indicated that US forces might have difficulty securing chemical weapons sites in Syria.

Asked if he had confidence the weapons depots could be safeguarded by US forces if necessary, Dempsey said: "Not as I sit here today, simply because they're moving it and the number of sites is quite numerous."

Hagel said he will discuss Syria during a trip to the Middle East next week when he will meet counterparts in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates "to review our regional security efforts."

Both Hagel and Dempsey made clear the Obama administration's deep reluctance to take military action in Syria, saying there was no international consensus for intervention and that the opposition was deeply fractured and tainted by the presence of Islamist extremists.

"We have an obligation and responsibility to think through the consequences of direct US military action in Syria," Hagel said.

"Military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian relief operations. It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment."